Qasmi. Would you say the genesis of Pakistan is based on exclusion, on difference?
Jalal. All nations are founded on exclusion. Nationalism that leads to exclusionary results harps on the idioms of your own community. Even in the case of Indian nationalism espoused by the Congress, the idioms deployed were Hindu idioms – whether it was Vande Mataram or the Wardha Scheme of Education. The failure of that nationalism is not adequately acknowledged. People keep talking about Pakistan and its exclusionary nationalism but what came first- communalism or nationalism? The sense of exclusion was created by the dominant idioms that the Congress employed despite its rhetoric of inclusionary nationalism.
Qasmi. Such as insisting on banning cow slaughter and having Vande Mataram. as India’s national anthem even when it went against Muslim sensibilities…
Jalal. And just the general attitude towards Muslims. Take, for instance, the career of the Ali brothers. They were with Gandhi during the Khilafat Movement, but then they just could not get along with him because of how Gandhi changed his position on the Khilafat Movement, under pressure from the Hindu right wing.
Qasmi. I wanted to talk about your book on the origins of martial rule in Pakistan. As Hamza Alavi has said, military is an overdeveloped institution because of the colonial structures it became successor to. In the presence of such structural problems, what can be the prospects for stable democratic institutions in Pakistan?
Jalal. Alavi’s argument was made for South Asia and not just for Pakistan. He talked about military as an “overdeveloped” institution in the colonial context. The military was an overdeveloped institution even in India. How do you then explain democracy in India and its lack in Pakistan?
Historical evidence suggests there was nothing overdeveloped about Pakistan’s military in the immediate aftermath of Partition. The flurry and chaos that would be there within bureaucracy, within the army in any new country was very much in evidence. In other words, there was nothing preordained about the military’s rise to dominance. You cannot explain the rise of the military in Pakistan without the context of Cold War and, obviously, the India factor. Pakistani governments developed the military because of the India factor and because the Americans were more than happy to give us funds.
Qasmi. You have used the term “intellectual wasteland” for Pakistan. How do you propose to change that?
Jalal. The most important way to do that – and where we are losing the battle in terms of our intellectual tradition- is improving our education system. Intellectually, we are not on par with anyone. We are outnumbered.
If you look at the way people think in this country, that is what makes it a wasteland. People don’t even know there is a need for decolonisation of the mind. Even the type of Islam we keep fighting for is a colonial concept. We haven’t really begun to understand that. Only when we begin to take decisions in our own interest [is when] we will truly be intellectually decolonised and able to turn this wasteland into a land of thousand flowers, blooming.
Qasmi. Do you think there will be a subaltern movement in Pakistan’s historiography?
Jalal. The prognosis of the subaltern school was very good but their actual work showed very poor results. The movement started off as a study of class, moved on to gender studies and now it is about subalternity of thought. But, what is subalternity?
Qasmi. Let us rephrase it as “people’s history”.
Jalal. History is all about perspective. People’s history can be written when you have some broad agreement on the narrative of your history. If I wanted to write a people’s history, I wouldn’t be able to explain any of the key moments. Can you explain Partition by a focus on people’s history? Can you explain, through people’s history, the mistakes we made in 1971? This is all romanticism with people.
What I am trying to do is turn the gaze inward, to see how people were writing during the colonial period.
If we have to understand the extraordinary developments in Pakistan’s history, sadly, we have to look at the people with the power to make decisions. Why am I studying those few people? Precisely because they have made a mess of our lives. I shall be happy writing about culture and wonderful intellectual stuff, such as mushairas, but will it give me a perspective on where Pakistan is today? History is about perspective and balance.
Qasmi. But you are moving towards literacy, cultural history, aren’t you?
Jalal. I have been moving in that direction for a long time. There is a whole world of scholarship in Urdu. I read a lot more Urdu sources now than I did in the past and they give me a very different view of things which colonial sources cannot.
Qasmi. The first thing that strikes a reader in your recent work, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Tunes, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, is its title. What do you think is the pity of Partition?
Jalal. The pity of partition is that human beings are still slaves to bigotry. That is Manto’s point of view. The pity that Manto talks about is how human nature in the context of conflict is reduced to criminality and animal behaviour. The other thing that I try to point out is the pity of Manto’s life and what Partition did to him.
Qasmi. In one way, Partition made Manto what he is but, in another way, Partition killed Manto…
Jalal. It is an interesting point. Whether Manto would have been as big a writer as he is now if Partition hadn’t happened is a big question for me. There is no doubt that Partition provided him the opportunity to write about things that, perhaps, he would not have written about. What made him internationally known are primarily his Partition stories.
Did Partition also kill him? What killed him was not Partition. It was the heartlessness of his closest friends, such as Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, for ideological reasons. What killed him was the treatment meted out to him in this country. He had left India, in large part, when his stories were overlooked [by filmmakers] in favour of Kamal Amrohi’s story and even his best friend Ismat Chughtai’s stories. He did not understand or approve of Partition but he slowly came to terms with it.
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